New banana disease is spreading and poses a threat to Africa’s food security

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The new banana fungus is spreading rapidly throughout the world. A genetic study by Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and the University of Utrecht reveals that it struck Africa a decade ago, and the disease’s progression poses a threat to Africa’s food security. Professor Gert Kima of Plant Pathology and colleagues sounded the alarm.

Fusarium wilt is progressing in Mozambique, where the dominant TR4 strain affects banana growers. But this is not the only country affected; Over the past decade, the disease has spread from Asia to South America and Africa. Following the first reports from Mozambique in 2013, no further reports were submitted for many years. Gert Keema, head of the Phytopathology Laboratory, sighs, “The disease appears to be under control in Africa. However, we have since learned that this is unfortunately not the case.”

The new study by PhD Kim. Student Anouk van Westerhoven and bioinformatics and data scientist Michael Seidel of Utrecht University in collaboration with a local researcher show that TR4 has spread at least 200 kilometers from the original farm. Genetic research shows that strains in different loci are closely related, which means that the pathogen found in Mozambique has a single origin.

Spread across Africa

“That first outbreak was not controlled after all. The disease is still spreading, including among small farmers and people who have banana plants in their gardens. They may not recognize the disease and, as a result, cannot treat it appropriately,” says Van Westerhoven. .

“The question is not whether the disease will spread to other African countries, but rather when it will,” she says. In countries such as Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda and Rwanda, bananas are a staple food for millions of people. They often grow Cavendish bananas that are sold in supermarkets around the world, but they also often grow local strains of bananas. “Whether or not they are susceptible to TR4 disease is not known for all strains. Hence, this disease threatens food security in those countries,” warns Kima.

New breed, old disease

Kima’s predictions are based on past experiences. Fusarium is well known in the world of banana growers. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Panama disease wreaked havoc across Latin America. The disease was caused by various fusarium fungi, and its destruction was finally halted when farmers began growing resistant Cavendish bananas.

Cavendish currently dominates the global market. TR4 is a new species of Fusarium that affects this species and many other banana varieties. The fact that this is largely unknown for African banana species nearly ten years after TR4 first appeared in Mozambique, Keema says, is “unthinkable.”

Transmitted by humans, cars and water

With the same banana planted everywhere, the disease spreads rapidly. “It’s a soil-borne fungus,” Kim explains.

“Floods help to spread greatly. Moreover, the fungi can be transmitted through contaminated tools, soil carried on shoes and car tires. There is heavy traffic in farms, and bananas are picked by hand, which makes it difficult to control such fungi.” During the epidemic of the last century, all efforts proved unsuccessful.

Cultivation of alternative varieties

“Our first priority is to know which species are susceptible and which are not,” Kima continues. “A proactive approach. Once TR4 is in place, every effort must be made to contain the outbreak. Furthermore, it must be known which species can still be grown. The ultimate solution lies in new resistant varieties. This requires reproduction, a process that takes time. long.”

WUR and its partner KeyGene are involved in a large-scale breeding initiative in East Africa. “But we have also started breeding our own varieties in collaboration with Chiquita. This effort is focused on diversifying varieties for the export trade. However, the knowledge gained will also be used to breed local varieties for local markets,” Kima explains.

Refers to a study published in PLUS ONE this week. Lead author Dr. Fernando Garcia-Bastedas, Keygene banana breeder and formerly a Ph.D. A student in the Kema team, “We figured out how to run immune response in Cavendish using an avirulent strain of Fusarium. More research is needed, but understanding this phenomenon could contribute to future solutions.”

Concerns about African food security

“Eventually, other types of bananas will be sold in European markets,” says Kima. “But my biggest concern is not whether Western consumers will be able to eat bananas in the future. This is about food security in Africa. That’s what worries us now that this fungus has spread.” Easily. “

The search was published in Pathogens PLOS And the plant disease.

Possible way to give Cavendish bananas resistance to TR4 fungi

more information:
Anouk C. van Westerhoven et al., Non-containing spread of Fusarium wilt or banana threatens African food security, Pathogens PLOS (2022). DOI: 10.1371 / journal.ppat.1010769

Anouk C. van Westerhoven et al, Spread of Fusarium wilt of bananas in Mozambique caused by Fusarium odoratissimum Tropical Race 4, plant disease (2022). DOI: 10.1094 / PDIS-07-22-1576-SC

Cause Fernando A. PLUS ONE (2022). DOI: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0273335

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